Always Coming Home:

     Gisei knelt down before the door of her lord's private
study and composed her spirit.  The last time she had met
privately with Yoshitaka-dono he had assigned her the task of
guarding his rice.  Said rice was on its way to resupply Daidoji
Uji's forces for their march on Shiro no Yogin, but that, as her
lord would say, was a detail.

     Having calmed her mind and set her face into a proper
expression Gisei scratched gently on the door and waited for
admittance.  And waited.  And waited.  She had passed the point
of wondering what she had done to deserve such a pointed snub
and was starting to be worried for her lord's welfare when his
voice called out to her.

     The samurai-ko sighed in relief and entered.   The study
was much as she remembered it--an arrangement of flowers stood
on small table next to the door, the screens to the outside
balcony were open, allowing the summer breezes in, and a small
brazier warmed a pot of tea.  Her lord was kneeling at his desk,
which was much neater than usual, painting.  Gisei knelt before
him and waited to be acknowledged.   It was not at all strange
to find Daidoji Yoshitaka busy painting; his Doji mother had
given him both her elegant looks and her passionate love of art.
 His study was decorated with a number of beautiful paintings,
some of them his own work. 

     "So sorry to keep you waiting," Yoshitaka said, putting his
brush down, "but he perched on my balcony just before you
arrived, and I didn't wish to scare him off."  He turned the
paper he had been painting on around, allowing her to see it. 
"What do you think?"

     "Tono!" Gisei exclaimed, delighted.  A small, perfect
sparrow perched on a balcony railing, regarding her with a clear
air of smug superiority.  "He is laughing at us!"

     "As well he should be, since he is out enjoying the day and
we are locked in this hole.  Is it any wonder that Shinsei's
closest friend was a bird?"  The Daidoji lord set the painting
on the stack of paper on his desk and focused his attention on
her.  "I have spoken to Masatake-san about you.  He has nothing
but praise for your mastery of the warrior's arts."

     "Thank you, Tono," Gisei said, trying not to blush.  She
would have liked to deny it, but Doji Masatake was her lord's
hatamoto, and thus uncontradictable.  Worse still, he was
correct.  War in the Shadowlands had meant long hours of battle
where there was no time to think about perfection and nothing
less would serve.  Gisei had come out of the darkness with a
fighting style that had been ground to a killing edge, and it
wasn't until she had returned home had she noticed it.  Being
feared was an odd feeling, but she thought she could learn to
enjoy it.  

     "I have also heard from Doji Taiu-san, who was most
impressed by you.  In your report to me you had not mentioned
that you spent an evening entertaining Taiu's court with your

     This time the samurai-ko did blush.  "Tono, they were
starved for news from the south.   I told them all that I knew
or had heard about the battle at Volturnum, that is all."

     "Details, Gisei-san," he admonished her, "details."  He
picked up a paper and showed her the seal upon it.  "Doji
Hanoshi is starting to plan for his winter court.  Inviting a
Daidoji lord is a chancy action, but since I did not support
Uji-sama's war against Kuwanan-sama my dear cousin has decided
that I am sufficiently tame."  Gisei nodded her understanding. 
No one really believed that Yoshitaka didn't support Uji--least
of all Hanoshi--but her lord had public deniability, and that
was enough.

     "Unfortunately," Yoshitaka went on briskly, "I am going to
be very ill this winter, and my personal healer will advise
against my traveling."

     "I will be very sorry to hear that you are ill, Tono,"
Gisei said gravely.  "I will visit the shrine daily, praying for
your recovery."

     "No, you won't," he said.  "You will be at Hanoshi-kun's
court, representing me." 

     Gisei looked at him for several breaths before she trusted
herself to speak.  "Tono, I do not understand."

     "What is to not understand?   My words were perfectly

     "Hai, Tono.  You want me to guard your rice."

      Yoshitaka gave a short bark of laughter.  "I am pleased
that you didn't leave your wit in the south, Gisei-san.  You
have been so quiet since your return I had begun to worry."  He
looked around his desk, searching for something, and then with a
pained look he flipped the sparrow painting over and showed her
the writing on the other side.  "Hanoshi wants to use this as an
opportunity to resolve the issue of the silk work at Heigen
Toshi.  This is his opening offer."  He handed her the document.

     Gisei took it and studied it carefully.  She was vaguely
aware of the matter, which revolved around a highly profitable
holding which Yoshitaka and Hanoshi jointly owned, and which
Hanoshi wanted full control of.  Predictably, Hanoshi's opening
offer was full of benefits to himself, and scanty on advantages
to Yoshitaka.  "Hanoshi-sama is known to be a clever
negotiator," she said, handing back the paper.  "No one will be
surprised when I ask to have the matter delayed until your
health improves."

     "You will not ask for a delay," her lord said.  "You are to
give Hanoshi everything he asked for in this letter, and get
nothing in addition in return."

     "Tono!" Gisei said, aghast at the loss this amounted to.

     "It is only koku, Gisei-san," Yoshitaka said mildly. 
"During the unpleasantness  surrounding Shiro no Yogin Hanoshi
handled a number of projects that I was unable to undertake
myself, to the great benefit of our clan.  If a silk work will
make him happy I am quite willing to give it to him."

     "Hai, Tono," Gisei replied, sorting through her thoughts. 
"So my task is to do a credible job of looking incompetent, so
that others will not wonder what Hanoshi-sama has done to
warrant such gratitude."  That didn't sound too difficult, she
thought with relief.

     "That is certainly what Hanoshi will think.  At first." 
Yoshitaka picked up his brush and idly dabbed it in his ink
dish.  "Eventually, he will realize what your real task is, and
that the silk work, though important, is merely a convenient
cover for your presence in his house."  He selected a random
sheet of paper from the stack on his desk and started to doodle
on its back.

     Her lord had claimed to miss her wit.  Gisei saw an opening
and seized it.  "Perhaps then Hanoshi-sama will be kind enough
to explain it to me," she said.

     Yoshitaka looked up from the crane that had appeared on his
paper.  "When you traveled through the Doji lands, on your way
to Shiro Daidoji, how were you treated?"

     Gisei hesitated, unwilling to think about it, but unable to
ignore his question.  "I--I was treated with great politeness,
Tono," she said finally.  It was true: with the exception of
Taiu and his court, most Doji had shown her nothing but
courtesy.  Absolute, painfully correct courtesy.

     "Hmmm."  Yoshitaka started work on a second crane.  "And
what are the weapons of the Three Families?" 

     It was an old proverb among the warriors of the Daidoji, a
truth that every one of them knew.  "The katana, the yari, and
the polite word," she answered. 

     "Just so," her lord said, looking up from the two cranes
that faced off in silent conflict.  "The Crane have never
maintained armies large enough to protect all of our lands--we
had other kinds of force available to us.  But employing such
forces require advance knowledge of the threat, and that is
knowledge we no longer have."  Yoshitaka indicated his desk with
a graceful flick of his brush, managing somehow not to lose any
ink in doing so.  "Look at my desk.  What do you see?"

     "I can see the wood, Tono," Gisei said quietly.  It had
been a joke, once.

     "All of my correspondents in the Doji vassal families
stopped writing when the war began, and of the Doji themselves
only Hanoshi has kept in contact.  Of the Kakita and their
vassals, most have abandoned me, and Hanoshi counsels me not to
trust the ones who still send reports.  He is most likely
correct.  At the moment, my surest information comes from the
Asahina.  They have always thought us to be stubborn,
unreasonable, and violent, so Uji-dono's actions left no sense
of betrayal."  The Daidoji lord dropped his brush, sending ink
splattering across the cranes. 

      "Kuwanan-sama could have healed the breach," Yoshitaka
said after a moment,  "he understood the way of the life-giving
sword.  He was a reminder that the first Daidoji was born a
Doji.  But he was lost to us at Volturnum, and now lesser souls
must take up the task."

    Lost…The word echoed oddly in Gisei's head, and for a moment
she smelled not the flowers and waxed wood of her lord's study,
but the sweetness of Tainted earth and blood.  Lost…'No', she
thought, 'I won't', and felt her stomach clench as she realized
she didn't know what she was refusing. 

     "Gisei-san?" her lord said.  She looked up to see him
regarding her with open concern.  

     "So sorry, Tono," she whispered.  "I was just
remembering--" she broke off as a fresh stab of terror went
through her.

     "Gisei-chan," Yoshitaka said, and there was such gentleness
in his voice that it startled her and drew her attention out to
him.  "I fled the ruin of Kyuden Kakita with Uji-dono…I know how
it feels to have lived when so many of one's comrades have died.
 But we do not live for ourselves, but for the service we do for
the clan.  You must not allow your grief to overwhelm you."

     "Hai, Tono," Gisei said weakly.  Desperate for a safe focus
to her thoughts, she pulled the threads of their conversation
together and wove them into a conclusion.  "So you wish me to go
to Hanoshi-sama's court and acquire new correspondents for you,
from among his guests."   With every word she felt her fear melt
away, until it was only a disturbing, inexplicable memory.


     Yoshitaka never chose randomly from his retainers, Gisei
knew.  When he took the time to personally assign a task, it was
a sign that he needed some talent that retainer possessed. 
"Tono, why do you send me?  Why not Masatake-sama?  Or

     "Masatake-san is a Doji," he said bluntly.  "It is the
Daidoji that Hanoshi's guests will have concerns about, and a
Daidoji must lay those concerns to rest.  You are skilled in
war, but you are also articulate, personable, talented at the
art of storytelling and appreciative of the other arts.  You are
everything a warrior of the Crane should be, and you will remind
them that the Daidoji are Cranes, and nothing else."

     Gisei warmed all over to know that Yoshitaka thought so
highly of her.  But, "Tono, all those things could be said also
of you."

     The Daidoji lord picked up his brush, dabbed it into the
ink dish and started another doodle.  "Which is, no doubt, why
Hanoshi-kun invited me in the first place; he is not ignorant of
our clan's weaknesses, and is willing to take the actions needed
to repair them.  But our enemies are also aware of our
weaknesses, and will act to maintain them.  Since it will be
known in advance that I am going to Hanoshi's Winter Court they
will have plenty of time to prepare against me.  And then you
will show up in my place."  

     Upsetting their plans, and giving her a few days grace
while they tried to figure out who this obscure samurai-ko was,
and what weapons they could bring to bear against her.  Gisei
wondered if she was equal to the challenge and then found her
attention caught by the soaring crane that had appeared on the
paper before her.  'I will show you what you are,' the Ubume had
said, and given her a crane flying through stormy skies.  She
looked up and met her lord's eyes.  "I will not fail you,

     "I never doubt you," the Daidoji lord said.  "Do you have
any further questions?"

     Gisei thought quickly.  "Tono, in forming the contacts you
desire there will be understandings to negotiate.  What am I
authorized to do?"

    Yoshitaka looked at her expressionlessly.  "Whatever it
takes, Gisei-san."

     "But what are the limits of my authority?" Gisei persisted.
 "What losses are you prepared to absorb?"

     Yoshitaka picked the sparrow painting up off the stack and
held it over the brazier's flame.  He watched it for a moment as
the flame licked at the paper and then dropped it into the
coals.  When it had been reduced to curling ash he looked back
up at her.  

  "Hai, Tono," she said.  "Details."